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When Grief Inspires Gratitude

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I walked across town this morning to attend Santa Fe Friends Meeting with grief on my mind. It seems as if each day brings some new catastrophe, another blow to any sense of reason and stability in these times: The massacre of 50 worshippers at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand on Friday by a young white supremacist. The crash of the Ethiopian Airlines Boeing Max 737 jet a week ago, killing all 157 people on board, seemingly due to flawed aircraft control systems. Yesterday's news that a soon-to-be-released UN-backed report shows that we are literally using our planet to death at the risk of widespread species extinction and all-out failure of the living communities that sustain not just nature, but human lives too.

How much can any one of us take? I wondered as I found a seat in the meetinghouse. How do we deal with the grief and anger, the feelings of hopelessness and helplessness? How do we find the strength and courage to continue to walk forward, to contribute to our communities and to this planet in positive ways? 

There is no one "right" answer to my questions. The answers will be different for each of us, because we are--thank heavens--diverse people with diverse needs, perspectives, and talents. The world needs that diversity; the global crises that we are dealing cannot be resolved with one single solution, one absolute truth. It will take all of us, each working in our own ways, to bring this earth and humanity back to health. 

I've spent a lot of time "sitting" with grief in the past eight years since helping my mother through her death in February of 2011. Then, ten months after Mom died, Richard, the love of my life and my husband for almost 29 years, died in November.

Richard and Molly outside the VA Hospital in September, 2009, during his first hospitalization for the brain cancer that eventually killed him. 

Molly, the daughter of my heart, lived with us for the last five weeks of his life, helping to the end, a huge gift for her daddy and me. I don't know if I would have survived those weeks of his hospice care at home, if she hadn't been there offering to support us both. 

I thought I had learned my way to living with the hole in my heart that those deaths left. I was feeling pretty confident of my ability to be with grief without letting it bring me to my knees. And then Dad died last October. After which, the state of the climate, this Earth, and human culture seemed to go to farther to heck in a hand-basket. I wondered again why I am here and what is the point of this life, when we seem to have screwed things up so badly. 

I had no answers. I busied myself with dealing with Dad's affairs: carrying out his will and seeing to the myriad financial and legal details. And then there was packing and moving, which kept me occupied for some months. Plus I had my climate garden idea to work on, another distraction from the inner gloom--even though I have yet to find a market for the kick-ass commentary I wrote with great feedback from friends and fellow writers. 

I thought I had passed the danger point of simply giving way and staying in bed all day curled up in a fetal position, or going on the mother of all shopping sprees and blowing my budget. Until some personal news combined with last week's losses around the world, and I felt despair rising.

Yesterday afternoon on a walk downtown, I saw a flash of yellow out of the corner of my eye. I turned, and there, hugging the warm ground in a just-cleared flower bed near City Hall, was one clump of chrome-bright crocus blooms. Spring! The promise of renewal, and life continuing despite all that is so wrong around the globe.

Yesterday's crocuses, drinking in the sunshine. A lesson in gratitude, and resilience.  

Those crocuses and their promise of spring and renewal were enough to lift my mood, and get me to thinking about writing about grief instead of wallowing in it. Then in Meeting for Worship this morning, a man stood up to speak. He was grateful to be here, he said, to not have to worry about finding food for his family, or shelter for the night. He was grateful to be able to live free from fear, he continued. And then, his voice breaking, he said he was grateful simply to be alive, to be able to "be" in this moment, here worshipping with Friends. 

Those words reminded me that I too, have much to be grateful for. In the midst of the losses, I have a snug home, family and friends, work that fulfills and challenges me, a landscape and community to live in that while certainly not perfect, bring me joy. Remembering what I am grateful for helped me swim to the surface of the grief that threatens to overtake me in times like these. 

This Friend's raw, yet thoughtful litany of gratitude in the face of shared grief also made me realize that for me at least, effective actions come not from denying my grief, nor from wallowing in it. They come out of the feelings of humility and compassion, empathy and love inspired by remembering to be grateful for what I have, the ability to live with grief included.

I believe that of those, love is what inspires the best we are as humans. As I wrote in my book The San Luis Valley: Sand Dunes and Sandhill Cranes

What we do best comes not from our heads but our hearts, from an ineffable impulse that resists logic and definitions and calculation: love. Love is what connects us to the rest of the living world, the divine urging from within that guides our best steps in the dance of life.  

So even as I grieve for the losses in these difficult times, I will remember to practice gratitude each day, and with it give rise to the love and compassion that are the threads that connect me to all of life, and remind me to act with my heart, as well as my head. 

That litany of gratitude includes all of you, the wider community that inspires and informs my days. Thank you for walking this life with me. 

Three of the Zuni fetish bears in the collection of beings on my desk who remind me to be grateful for each day... 

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Revising a Cherished Dream

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I have spent part of the last several summers in Yellowstone National Park, helping remove invasive weeds as a volunteer, work that feeds my soul even as it tones my body. Spend a day prying a few hundred invasive weeds out of hard soil with a seven-inch plant knife, and you'll know why I call my time in the nation's oldest National Park, "Spa Yellowstone." (You can read more about why I love this work in my essay, "Weeding Yellowstone," in Minding Nature Journal.)  

An uprooted Houndstongue (Cynoglossum officianale) plant with my plant knife for scale, plus one of the day's haul of weed-filled bags. 

There is no pay for this work, though I do get an official tan polyester NPS volunteer shirt and a volunteer ball-cap that I wear with pride (and wash frequently, as both get pretty sweaty). And Heidi Anderson, the Park Botanist and my wonderful boss, arranges for a free campsite at the Mammoth Campground, the one nearest where I do most of my work. The satisfaction of doing something positive for this extraordinary planet and the joy of spending weeks at a time in Yellowstone are reward enough. 

While I'm in Yellowstone, I live in Red, my trusty Toyota Tacoma pickup. The nest under the topper I have created is comfy even in spring or fall snowstorms, and suits my in-born need to be frugal and climate-conscious. 

My cozy "home" inside Red's topper, complete with four-inch-thick mattress, summer-winter sleeping bag, crate for a nightstand, and camp toilet (under the green towel). 

But it lacks heat for those freezing days and nights, and a space to sit and write, which I do every day--at the picnic table of my campsite in good weather, and in the lobby of the Mammoth Hotel when the weather is not fine. My truck-topper camper also doesn't offer weather-tight kitchen space either--I cook on my backpacking stove on the tailgate, which makes for chilly breakfasts on snowy days. And it's a wet kitchen in the rain. 

My snug home after a snowstorm the night before my birthday in September. I stayed in bed as long as I could that morning!

I love the weeding work and would like to take my plant knife to other places, but I am constrained by what Red lacks. So I've dreamed of buying a small RV, a camper-van of the sort I could live in for a month or more, roaming national parks and other public lands, and offering my services as an eradicator of invasive plants in return for time to explore and soak up these unique and wild landscapes. I grew up camping with my family in campers my dad and granddad built in stripped-down delivery vans, and I cherish those memories. 

I imagine spending a couple of weeks weeding in Zion National Park in spring, for instance, and Mesa Verde. Or Big Bend National Park in Texas, Lava Beds National Monument in Idaho, North Cascades National Park in Washington, and Saguaro National Park in Arizona. 

After my first season in Yellowstone, I did some research and found what looked like the perfect small RV for me, a Roadtrek Zion SRT, a 20-foot-long camper built on a Dodge Ram chassis, with a comfy queen bed in the back that converts into a dinette, a small and well-equipped kitchen, a wet bath (a bathroom that converts to a shower stall, common in small RVs), a heater, and best of all, solar panels to charge its batteries. 

Roadtrek Zion SRT

I talked to Roadtrek owners I met at Yellowstone, and they raved about the design and performance of their vehicles. The space is efficiently used, the materials environmentally friendly, the quality high, and their reliability and fuel-efficiency are legendary in the industry. One couple I talked to had been living in theirs for two years, working remotely from national parks they visited. 

I began planning, saving, and dreaming of buying my own Roadtrek, which I thought of as my rolling writing studio, a mobile and comfy home. Downsizing from my gorgeous restored Mid-Century Modern house and yard in Cody would allow me to cash out and buy my dream Zion SRT, solar panels, cherrywood-stained cabinetry and all. 

Zion SRT interior (partial)

In January, after the Cody house went under contract, I treated myself with a trip to La Mesa RV in Albuquerque, where I drove a Zion very like the one I wanted, and traded camping memories with the no-pressure salesman (thank you, John Zimmerman!). He answered all of my questions and assured me that if I put down my deposit in the next month or so, I could have exactly the Roadtrek I wanted built by late spring. 

I told John I would get back to him in a few weeks, once the house contract had cleared the major hurdles. And I drove home jazzed. I could see my dream coming true. I began planning my summer in Yellowstone, only with my comfy new Roadtrek, which I had already named Mercuria for her silver color. 

And then... The day my real estate agent texted to say that the Cody house sale had made it through the last hurdle, and closing was just over two weeks away, I checked the newsletter of a journalist who is also a Roadtrek owner. He reported disturbing rumors about possible financial irregularities revealed in the family-owned company's books. The factory had shut down temporarily, he said. Uh oh. 

I called John. He had heard the rumors too, but the talk in the industry was reassuring: Roadtrek was a valuable brand, the factory would re-start soon, and all would be well. But since the factory had ceased production, John offered to check with the other branches of the dealership to see if any had "my" dream Zion SRT in stock. It turned out there was one in Arizona, and La Mesa could truck it to Albuquerque in a few days. We talked price, and trade-in for Red, and struck a deal. I gulped, put down $5,000 for a deposit, with closing on the sale to happen a few days after my Cody house sold. 

When Mercuria arrived in Albuquerque, John texted photos. I couldn't wait to see her, do a final test-drive, and drive her home to Santa Fe. My dream was coming true!

Mercuria

House closing in Cody went off without a hitch on Friday, February 15th. And that same day, Roadtrek went belly up. All 850 workers at the two plants in Ontario came to work and were told that they no longer had jobs, a huge loss for them and their families. $300 million had somehow gone missing from the company's assets, and it was going into receivership. 

The dealership went into action: They purchased a stem-to-stern warranty program to substitute for what Roadtrek could no longer provide, they began stockpiling parts, especially the proprietary lithium batteries, from Roadtrek suppliers; they offered their decades of experience and continuing support. All of which I appreciated. 

My head said go for it: Mercuria was my dream tiny rolling home and I was getting a good deal at a steep discount. Except... I began having anxiety dreams and waking in the night, heart racing. I read all the news I could find about the company: people were snapping up the remaining available inventory, industry insiders speculated that the brand would be bought out of bankruptcy, the factories re-opened, and warranties would be honored again. All of which was reassuring. 

But... my gut still felt deeply uneasy about investing such a large chunk of my retirement cash in the RV I had dreamed of without a company to back it up. This morning when I woke up at four am worrying again, I decided to let that dream go. Mercuria isn't right for me now. But I know she will be perfect for someone else. 

What is Plan B? 

I've spent the day looking at other RVs on the internet, and found that there just isn't anything I love enough to justify paying out what to me is a stupendous sum of money. Furthermore, I realized that at heart, I am the homemade, back-of-a-truck, small-footprint sort of camper. I need something more all-weather than Red's topper, but not something as fancy as Mercuria.

So I've re-thought my plan and gone back to a dream I tried unsuccessfully to convince Richard to go for years ago: Buy a small SUV (a hybrid now that they're becoming available) and a tiny teardrop trailer, just big enough for a bed and sitting area, with a back hatch that opens into a covered kitchen. 

Teardrop trailer in the snow. Photo: Colorado Teardrops

I think I know just the trailer, a Basedrop from Colorado Teardrops, kitted out with extras like a solar panel for power, a pumped water supply, and star-gazing skylight. For the tow vehicle, I'm inclined toward a Toyota Rav4 hybrid, a small and fuel-efficient SUV with the comforts I've gotten used to, like heated seats and a good stereo system for long road-trips. 

Basedrop kitchen Photo from Colorado Teardrops

The lesson: Adapt. Don't cling to dreams that no longer suit us. Times change--and if we don't change with the times, we risk making decisions and going in directions we will likely at least regret later, if not actually suffer for.

So I've let go of Mercuria, and saved a bunch of money in the doing. I can see myself tooling down the road in my Rav4 hybrid, blue I think, towing a tiny solar-powered trailer where I can cook myself dinner, write and read, and sleep soundly after a long day of digging weeds, snug as can be. That sounds like me... 

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Climate Garden: When Writing Takes a Village

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Last November, I was at Mesa Refuge in California, where my only responsibility was to refine and write about my new idea, climate gardening. My dad had died less than a month before, shifting the framework of my life in ways I am still adjusting to. I spent my days quietly and simply: rising early, doing yoga, and then walking the rural roads near the Refuge as scrub jays and towhees and humans alike sleepily began going about our days. After breakfast, I settled in to read and write.

Most afternoons I walked to Point Reyes Station, just to get out and see what was happening in the world. Often Alia Malek, Syrian-American writer, NYU professor, and human rights lawyer--and my suite-mate at the Refuge--joined me. As we paced the mile to town, did a few errands, and walked back, we talked about our work. (If you've not read Alia's most recent book, the powerful and compelling memoir The Home that Was Our Country, put it on your list. You won't be able to put it down, and your understanding of Syria, the Mid-East, and the United States' role in the ongoing war there will be forever changed.)

Over dinner with Fred Bahnson, writer and Wake Forest Divinity School professor--our other Refuge-mate--we exchanged stories and ideas, thoughts about writing, books we were reading, people who inspired us, musings about the creative process and the state of the world. The time at Mesa was incredibly fertile time, and my climate gardening idea grew and deepened. 

Before we parted, Alia encouraged me to write a commentary from my book idea, and submit it to the New York Times. She thought the climate victory garden idea had a good chance there if I could frame it in a way that was compelling enough. She offered to critique what I wrote, an incredibly generous gesture from someone who was wrapping up her semester at NYU and preparing for travel to the Mid-East and beyond. 

Alia Malek reading from The Home That Was Our Country at Mesa Refuge. Photo: Susan Page Tillett

So back at home in Cody, in between packing up my household, fulfilling Dad's financial and legal wishes, and preparing to move to Santa Fe, I wrote, rewrote, and rewrote my commentary again. I had a rich conversation with Roger Swain, host of PBS TV's long-running Victory Garden show, and the idea flourished with his encouragement. 

When I had what I thought was a final version of the commentary, Alia looked at it, made some great suggestions, and pinged her editor at the New York Times for a name and contact info for me. I sent the idea out to other friends in the writing and gardening worlds, and they offered insightful comments and enthusiasm.

(Special thanks to fellow authors Priscilla Stuckey, Sharman Russell, and Sharon Lovejoy; botanist and author Marielle Anzellone; hydrologist and amazing science writer Sarah Boon; lawyer and UNC professor Thomas Thornburg; and horticulturists Pat Hayward, Jennifer Bousselot, and Irene Shonle. To my literary agent, Elizabeth Trupin-Pulli, who has graciously read and commented on many versions. And to the Literary Ladies group, who buoyed me with their excitement for the idea. You all are wonderful!)

With each set of comments, the idea and my ability to articulate it in a "next great thing" way grew and expanded. And so did my confidence. To the point that by the time I had gotten moved from Wyoming to New Mexico, and more or less settled in my snug condo here, I took Alia's challenge and sent the commentary off to the editor at the New York Times. When he responded to my email within the hour of my sending it, my heart practically stopped. 

I have never submitted anything to the Times, much less gotten an almost-instant response. The editor asked a couple of good questions, which I answered--though perhaps not to his satisfaction, since one answer involved saying that there wasn't data to bolster one facet of the idea. No matter, he said he'd circulate the commentary to his colleagues and get back to me the next day. 

That day passed, and another and another and another... I shared the commentary with a few more friends and colleagues. The idea continued to grow. I revised the commentary again with more data, and submitted a new version to the NYT editor. And heard nothing. So I figured it hadn't worked for him.

Once that would have been as far as my confidence extended, and I would have scaled back my expectations and submitted the commentary to the safe-but-smaller outlets that had already expressed an interest. But this idea has me by the throat. It has me dreaming big. As the current version says, 

The power [of climate gardening] lies in the numbers, in empowering each of us to make a positive difference, and in a cultural shift that begins with a simple idea.

I turned to the next outlet on my short list: I hunted up an editor at the Washington Post and submitted it to him. (I've never submitted there either.) And then heard back from the editor at the New York Times, who apologized for his delayed response and gave me a very gracious, "No thanks." I think it was one of the kindest rejection emails I've ever received!

The editor at the WaPo turned me down three days later. Frustrated, I messaged another writer friend, Susan Zakin, author of Coyotes and Town Dogs, and a frequent contributor to Medium. Susan is a powerful writer with an astute view of American politics. She read the commentary, loved the idea, and "took a whack at it," offering great suggestions on framing and wording. So the idea and the commentary have grown yet again, as has my understanding of my own belief in both. 

The support from my "village" of writers and scientists is a huge boost. I am usually a solitary writer, working over--and over--my words and ideas until I feel they are ready to share. But this idea is bigger than just me. It has given me courage to ask for help and advice, to reach farther and deeper. To dream big. And I have grown. 

Tomorrow, I'll submit the climate victory garden commentary again. I'm not sure where it's going yet. But I know this: I am determined to get it out there. I want to start a movement, one that will empower us all to dig in and combat climate change in our own yards and neighborhoods, and to heal our divided communities in the doing. As I wrote in the closing lines:

We need a new Victory Garden movement to help reverse climate change and restore our nation. Gardens build community, uniting us across political, cultural, class, and racial divisions. They add beauty and joy to our daily lives. 

Let’s grow a Climate Garden movement for our planet’s future—and our own. 

Wish me luck!

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Settling In and Some Good News

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Tomorrow marks a month since I arrived in Santa Fe. In that time, I've overseen the kitchen renovation (when the back splashes are installed Wednesday, that job will finally be finished) plus installation of a new furnace. Almost all of my furniture is now here--I'm still waiting for dining chairs and two bookcases. I've unpacked, set up my office, and given away four dozen moving boxes. 

My cozy living room, with couch and easy chair, and a very happy Arabella, who is in full bloom right now. 

I've met some of my neighbors who also walk at dawn every day, along with their canine companions. (The photo at the top of the post is sunrise shot from my walking route, with the Cerrillos Hills and Sandia Mountains in the far distance.) I am learning to recognize coyote tracks in the arroyo, and to discern which rabbitbrush clumps hold desert cottontail dens. I listen for spotted towhees' "meh! meh!" calls as they scratch for insect larvae in the duff under the junipers, and smile at the chickadee chatter from the branches overhead. 

Tomorrow, I'm having a belated holiday open house for my circle of writing women-friends, a group that welcomed me to their monthly gatherings long before I had any idea I would be here for good. I'm grateful to these creative women for their friendship, inspiration, and their enthusiasm for my move to their midst.

Eggnog in progress (and missing back splashes!)

Today I finished a batch of my Sinfully Delicious Holiday Eggnog, the first I've made since the move. I say "finished" because it takes two days to make the eggnog, along with a dozen eggs, separated; a quart each of heavy cream, half-n-half, and whole milk; a pound of confectioner's sugar; three cups of dark rum, and other decadent ingredients, finishing with freshly grated nutmeg. 

And I baked a Lavender-Lemon Cheesecake to celebrate a birthday in our circle. I know I'm settled and happy when I take the time to make eggnog and bake a cheesecake! Both require a serious investment in time, and an organized kitchen. 

Lavender-lemon Cheesecake just out of the oven... 

I confess to being wildly optimistic about how long it would take me to make this transition. I was sure that by New Year's, I would be back to writing fulltime, and would have checked off at least one of the big projects I need to finish in the coming weeks: an essay due at Wildflower Magazine, a presentation to write for the Landscaping With Colorado Native Plants Conference next month, and a book proposal that my literary agent is waiting for.

My corner office, as in the corner of my master bedroom suite. It works for me!

Um. No. But in between moving and renovations and settling in, I did write a commentary based on the book proposal. The title of the commentary summarizes the idea: How Gardeners Can Help Grow the Green New Deal (and Stop Climate Change). After I rewrote the commentary a few times, I sent it out to various friends in the writing and garden worlds. And then revised the commentary again several times in response to the their comments. (Special thanks to Priscilla Stuckey, Alia Malek, and Marielle Anzellone!)

Then I wrote a pitch and sent the whole thing off to an editor at the New York Times. He emailed back within an hour! He had a couple of questions and said he'd pass it around to colleagues, and get back to me. I haven't heard back yet, but really: I. got. a. personal. response. from. an. editor. at. The. New. York. Times. That made my year... 

My other bit of good news is that my Cody house is under contract, with closing scheduled for a month from now. I have my fingers crossed for a smooth sale process. The inspection is Monday, and then there's the appraisal and financing and other details. It will be a huge relief to know that someone is happily living there and loving the place.  

Wish me luck with both the commentary and the house sale!

Oh, and one more bit of good news: My "Natural Partners" feature that took the cover of the fall issue of Wildflower--thanks to the gorgeous illustrations by Samantha Peters--is now online. It's not as pretty as the hard-copy version, but it's readable. (To see the original layout, go to Samantha Peter's website. Her illustrations are outstanding!)

Illustration by Samantha N. Peters, from Wildflower Magazine, Fall 2018

In the meantime, Monday I'm going to settle in at my desk and get back to writing and working to further my life-mission:

To heal and restore this glorious living Earth, and we who share the planet--that all may thrive. 

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Fifty-eight Boxes, 3,200 pounds, and 775 miles later...

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After packing, numbering, and inventorying 58 boxes and half-a-dozen un-numbered metal crates, hauling them to the garage, bubble-wrapping and loading 37 pieces of wall-art into Red along with other belongings not suitable for mover-transport, and then driving 775 scenic but very long miles from my Cody house to my Santa Fe condo with the movers several days behind me, I am finally settling in.

(Big thank-yous to my Cody neighbor, Kate, who supervised the loading after I left; to my Salida friend, Denise, for the much-needed massage on the way; and to my Santa Fe neighbor and friend, Liz, who welcomed me with a place to stay before the condo was ready.)

Sierra San Antonio, a volcanic dome marking where the Taos Plateau of northern New Mexico becomes the San Luis Valley of southern Colorado. 

The photo at the top of the post is my new living room, and yes, it's missing some furniture, which will arrive in about a week. Still, it's already inviting! The photo below is my Cody garage, all staged for the movers to load up. (That's what 3,200 pounds of my household looks like, if you were wondering.)

When I got to Santa Fe, my kitchen looked like... well, like it was in mid-remodel. The photos below give an idea of the destruction. Believe it or not, what you see there is a big improvement over the 1984-vintage kitchen of before. 

New counters are in, old appliances are out, and the cabinets are stripped and ready for a face-lift. 

New sink too, but not hooked up yet. 

Oh, the difference a week, a lot of scrubbing, a diligent carpenter (thank you, Alan Baca!), and a tidy plumber can make! The kitchen still lacks back-splashes, but the counter guys will return for that. It also lacks a microwave-range hood, which will be installed tomorrow if the weather allows. I've already filled the cabinets and am happily enjoying cooking in the galley-sized space. 

It's been a bit of a challenge figuring out where everything goes, not just in the much-smaller kitchen, but in the whole condo. I downsized from 2,483 square feet on two levels into 848 on one. I still have two bedrooms and two baths, but no garage. (Red is surviving outside--it's not generally as cold in Santa Fe as it gets in Cody!) 

I've hung almost all of the art, set up my desk in the office area of the master bedroom, organized linens and closets and bathrooms, arranged the furniture I have in the living and dining areas, and in the guest bedroom. I also assembled two new bar-stools for the curved breakfast-bar counter between the kitchen and dining area, and assembled the mid-century modern bar cart for the dining area. (Go, Tool Girl!)

The breakfast bar with new barstools and bar cart

Next comes unpacking several dozen boxes of books, but that has to wait until my bookshelves arrive. One set comes tomorrow, along with my dining table, and my bed. (I am sleeping perfectly comfortably on a mattress on the floor, but it will be nice to have an actual bed.) 

The sunny master bedroom with my office in the corner, awaiting bookshelves.

I love every cubic inch of the condo, especially with the warm sun streaming in on these cold and snowy winter days. My absolutely favorite space is the living room (photo at the top of the post), with the patio outside, and the tall cottonwood tree shading it in summer. The light and colors make me smile. Come spring, I'll grow a garden in pots on the patio, adding wildflowers and native plants to provide beauty, and food and shelter for native bees and hummingbirds. 

This small space already feels like a refuge to me, a place I can hide away and write without interruption. I have always been drawn to small spaces, whether the little writing hut in a yard, the tiny houses on wheels, or this cozy condo.

Which I know raises the question of why I bought my gorgeous but terribly run-down mid-Century modern house and yard in Cody. Because the project it was then called to me. Restoration--whether of land or houses--is my passion, and that house definitely deserved to be brought back to life. Now that it's ready for its next 60 years, I look forward to finding someone to love and care for the place.

For the next phase of my life though, I want a nest, and that's what I'm creating here. As the old year ends, I say, "Welcome Home!" to the new one.

My wish for all? May 2019 bring more kindness and compassion to everyone, everywhere, and less turbulence and pain. And may we all be welcomed home, wherever  and whoever we are. 

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Re-Storying A House

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When I first saw my Cody place, the classic mid-Century modern had clearly gone through some hard times. The signs of neglect were obvious and numerous: roof shingles curled and broken, the carport added to the front entry sagging, once magnificent windows filmed with age and dirt, piles of stained mattresses and filthy insulation in the garage, the antique boiler laboring to keep the house warm, the three bathrooms with two working sinks, one working toilet, and one dubious shower between them; the overgrown yard, a tangle of dead shrubs and dirt and trees growing too close together. 

The living room when I first saw it, and that was on a good day... 

It was a daunting project, no doubt about that. But I could see the promise in the place. What gave me pause--and also tugged at my heart--was what I can only describe as a sense of despair, as if the house and yard had given up. 

So of course I had to buy it. I believe in healing and restoration--of houses, land, people. I could see that the place had a lot more years ahead if someone would only take a chance on bringing it back to life. 

Which I've spent the last two years doing, with the help of some talented trades-folk, most especially my contractor, Jeff Durham. The house and yard are renewed from roof to basement, and from front to back and side to side. The place shines and sparkles and sings again.

The backyard before

The backyard now, after tree-trimming and removal, meadow-seeding, and many sweaty hours hauling gravel and rock... 

Now that it's finished, I wanted to know if the place needed anything else from me before I head south. So I asked a new friend, an energy worker and healer in various modalities, to "read" my house. What Kim learned motivated me to do something I've intended to do all along, but haven't found the time for until now: research the house's story, at least as far as learning who owned it over the years. All I knew was that the house was built in 1956, and that there had been only two long-term owners. 

What I discovered from the county records, the history archives at the library, and from friends and neighbors was fascinating. I am only the seventh owner of this house and, oddly, the third widow. 

For most of the sixty-two years since the house was built, it was occupied by just two sets of owners: first, and longest, Inez and George King, who bought the house in 1969, and lived here until 2003 (George died in 1981, but Inez seems to have happily stayed on for another 22 years until her death in 2003). That year, Patricia Baumhover and Howard Madaus bought the house from the King's children; they, or at least she, lived here until 2015. (Howard, a military historian and former curator of the Cody Arms Museum at the Buffalo Bill Center of the West, Cody's big museum complex, died in 2007. Patricia, a librarian at the Park County Library, lived here alone--but for her cats, according to the neighbors--for another eight years.)

The house might well be called the King House though, since the Kings were in residence for 33 years, just over half the lifespan of the house today. I searched the archives for a photo of Inez, and couldn't find one. (History tends to erase women unless they are famous.)

I did learn a good bit about the King family, who moved to Cody in 1946 and developed Wapiti Lodge, one of the older lodges on the North Fork Highway, the road to the East Entrance of Yellowstone. After George and Inez sold the lodge and retired in 1970, they moved to town, presumably to be closer to their kids and grandkids. (Their descendants still live in the area.)

Wapiti Lodge in 1948, in the early years when the Kings were developing the complex. 

When I read Inez's obituary, I was delighted to discover that she was a gardener who enjoyed "working in her yard [and] tending to her flowers." In renovating the house and yard, I did my best to preserve the heritage perennials I uncovered, including the huge patch of fragrant lily of the valley (Convallaria majalis) in the back yard just outside the living room windows. I was careful to site the deck far enough away from the house that the patch wouldn't be disturbed. (My mom loved lily of the valley too.)

Lily of the valley from that big patch in the backyard

I also divided and spread the English iris (Iris latifolia cultivars) that I suspect Inez planted so they now bloom throughout the front yard, and did the same with the daylilies I found languishing in the shade along the east side of the house. And I planted peonies (Paeonia spp), another favorite garden flower of Inez's era, along with tall Asiatic lilies (Lilium hybrids). 

One of the patches of English iris I suspect Inez planted, blooming this spring after I dug up and divided the tubers to give them more space to flourish.

As I pack up to move south, I think about Inez and Patricia and the other women who have loved this house and yard, and hope they approve of all I've given this special place. And that the new owners--whoever they will be--will continue to fill this place with love and laughter and joy. 

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Navigating in the Fog

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Sometimes life is like the drive I took recently on my way home from Santa Fe to Cody. It's 775 miles from place to place, and no, I don't make the whole drive in one day. I left Santa Fe on one of those glorious late fall days in the high desert of northern New Mexico, with warm sun melting the night's frost off the silvered leaves of the rabbitbrush and big sagebrush, and the piñon pine and juniper needles crisp against blue sky. 

Dawn warms up the arroyo I often walk near where I stay in Santa Fe. 

The weather gods were kind as Red carried me north through northern New Mexico, up the wide expanse of the San Luis Valley in Southern Colorado (Colorado's wildest and most magical desert region, and one I wrote a book about with photographer Glenn Oakley), and then on north up the Arkansas River Valley where Richard and I lived for so long.

Even 11,000+ foot high Fremont Pass wasn't bad, considering the time of year. (Okay, it was snowing, but the pavement was partly clear.) From there on, we had smooth sailing until Rawlins, Wyoming, where the wind began to howl from the west in great walloping gusts.

Still, the roads were clear, so I got cocky, thinking I'd get all the way home without hitting really bad conditions. Red and I tacked sideways to the wind across the Great Divide Basin, where the Continental Divide splits in two, following the ridges that surround this in-draining bowl of salt-crusted desert. If the gusts were a mite strong, I thought nothing of it, even when we turned west directly into those galloping waves of air.

The sun was shining, I told myself, and the roads were clear. And we were four hours from home. What could go wrong?

When Red and I dropped over Beaver Rim into the Wind River Basin, the wind quit just as abruptly as if switched up. The air was still as glass. As we headed downhill into Riverton, the temperature dropped too, from the low 40s into the teens. Hoarfrost coated every surface, sparkling in the sunshine.

I'd like to say I had the first uh-oh thought then, but I didn't. I was tired and eager to make it home before dark, so I kept Red going, her tires humming as the miles sped past. I didn't read the weather-signs until we crossed the frozen, snow-covered expanse of Boysen Reservoir, about two and a half hours from home. I looked north toward the low ridge of the Owl Creek Mountains and the v-shaped gap of the Wind River Canyon, where we were headed. 

Boysen Reservoir

A gray layer of cloud hung along the lower edge of the Owl Creeks, muffling the canyon itself. Uh oh. 

Red and I turned north at Shoshoni, and soon drove under that cloud. Within a few minutes, the sun's warmth vanished, ice crystals formed on Red's antenna, and even with the heater blasting, cold seeped into the cab. 

High desert landscape with hoarfrost on snow

A few miles later, the cloud--which I now realized was ice fog--closed in around us and visibility dropped to half a mile (the photo at the top of the post), and then only a few car lengths. (I quit shooting photos then.)

I slowed Red and crept on, hoping no one came up suddenly behind us, or wandered into our lane from the other direction. Ten slow and icy but mercifully accident-free miles later, the fog began to lift, and we approached the winding canyon. 

The winding canyon lies ahead, but at least I can see...

The black ice lessened, and I began to think things might improve. Through two dark and icicle-hung tunnels carved in the ancient rock at the core of the range, Red and I emerged. And voilá!

 

I could see blue sky ahead. Around the next bend, the fog and ice cleared away entirely. 

By the time Red and I wound our way out of the canyon and crossed the Bighorn River, the sun had warmed the truck cab and we were whizzing along again. 

Exiting the canyon, the snow and ice behind us... 

From there on in, it really was smooth sailing, and I pulled Red into the driveway just as dusk deepened to darkness, having avoided hitting several hundred mule deer and a larger number of pronghorn on the last segment of the drive. 

My life right now feels very much like I'm still creeping along in that ice fog, hoping it lifts soon and I will see sun and blue sky ahead. (And be able to see the road I'm on!) The fog is partly the events in our country (although the mid-term elections brought a glimmer of smoother sailing ahead) and around the world, where climate change is now enough of an in-your-face catastrophe for humans and other species alike that perhaps we'll take it seriously. 

The fog is also personal. Back in late summer when I finally finished the house and put it on the market, I got cocky and felt like the road ahead was clear: the house would sell quickly, I would pack up and hit the road in my tiny, energy-efficient motorhome, and winter in a warmer climate. Then Dad was diagnosed with lymphoma, and my path turned to helping care for him, sorting out his legal and financial affairs, and serving as his personal representative to implement his will after he died.

My time at The Mesa Refuge earlier this month came as a real blessing. Those days with no charge but to write reminded me that no matter what is swirling around me, I have things to say that need to be said now. (Special thanks to my Mesa suite-mate, Syrian-American writer and human rights lawyer Alia Malek, for her thoughts and questions clarifying my thoughts.)

And now, here I am back in Cody and in the fog again. It snowed today. My house hasn't sold, and I am still working on implementing Dad's will. I am also writing. 

I think I can see a blue cast to my personal ice fog, as if it will clear. Or at least lift a bit. What is clear is that I am moving south to Santa Fe in a few weeks to get out of Wyoming's winter before it impacts my health again. I'll return this glorious sagebrush country come spring, and in the meantime, I hope someone buys this beautiful house. It's ready for someone new to love it, and I'm ready to let it go.

And I by then I will have a new book well under way, one about plants and gardens and climate change. So each day I write my way onward into the fog, in the faith that I am going where I need to go, clear roads or not. 

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Weathering Change and Grief

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Outside, California Quail call from the garden in plaintive voices, "Chi-CA-go! Chi-CA-go!" Mounds of Mexican bush sage bloom with stalks of plush purple velvet flowers, along with starry yellow bush sunflower, and scarlet pineapple sage. It's late afternoon and the tide is going out; I can smell the briny musk of the estuary below the bluff in the back yard of The Mesa Refuge, near Point Reyes Station on California's foggy north coast. 

I'm here thanks to the Alice Dorrance Spiritual Writing Fellowship and the generosity of those who support The Mesa Refuge, particularly its founder, Peter Barnes. The house I share with two other writers, Syrian journalist and CUNY professor Alia Malek, and writer and divinity school professor Fred Bahnson, is open and airy, with large windows and high ceilings, a tribute to its beginnings as a painter's studio.

Perched on a bluff that traces the path of one of North America's great fault systems, The San Andres, where one plate of Earth's crust slips slowly past the other, Mesa is literally on an edge. That continuing creep of two segments of Earth's shell creates stress and pressure, and the occasional herky-jerky displacement of earthquakes, appropriate for a place that nurtures writing that is figuratively on the edge as well, writing with the aim of changing the world. 

The gathering room at Mesa, lit by the gorgeous golden light of a coastal afternoon. 

I am here on an edge in my own life, a time of changes both positive and not-so, a time when I am called to look both back at the recent past and forward to a future that despite all, I sense great promise. This month marks seven years since Richard Cabe, the love of my life and my husband for the greater part of three decades, left this existence, killed by the same kind of brain cancer that recently took the life of Senator John McCain. 

Nearly a month ago, on October 7th, my father died, after he turned 90 years old in July, and then being diagnosed just a few weeks later with an aggressive form of non-Hodgkins lymphoma (cancer of the lymph cells). Dad was looking forward to voting this November, taking part in what he hoped would be a wave of civil, fair-minded politics that would turn the country to a more positive direction. May his hopes be borne out!

His death leaves my brother and I the elders in our small family. We aim to model the kind of love and generosity that Dad and Mom showed us, along with their abiding curiosity about the natural world and deep commitment to using their skills and resources for the greater good of all. Eldering is a big responsibility, but it's a joy as well, because we get to watch our kids and their kids grow and find their own ways to give back to the world. (And we get to nudge and help as we can.)

Dad (far right), and my brother, Bill Tweit, with Bill's middle daughter, Sienna Bryant and her family, hubby Matt (far left), and their kids, Fiona and Porter

At the same time that I feel optimistic about the generations to come and their dedication to making a positive difference in the battered world we are leaving them, I also feel a deep grief for the planet I love, as climate change destabilizes not just our weather systems, but the myriad of interconnections between species large and small--from bacteria to blue whales--that maintain the health of whole watersheds, continents, air masses, and the oceans. I am working on a book about restoring nature at home to help us unlock our paralysis about climate change and take seemingly small actions that can stem that tide, and also restore beauty and health to our own lives. 

Even as that work gives me hope, I find myself grieving in a selfish way, because I am weathering these changes--personal and political and planetary--on my own, without Richard, the partner who challenged and inspired and nurtured me. Whose company helped me be a better and stronger and wiser version of myself. At this time of year, I feel the loss of his steady love and companionship most acutely. I have built a happy and fulfilling life on my own, and I have no desire to change my femme solo status, except for this stubborn and illogical wish that Richard were still here, with me. 

So up and down I go, bobbing on the stream of changes that are the only constant in this existence, the journey we call life. Weathering those changes is part of being human, of being alive.

I believe we can turn in a more positive direction. As a sign of that faith, here I am, writing with determination and hope. Writing the change I want to see.

Dilla, a Oaxacan dream armadillo, keeps me company and brings a smile as I write.

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Letting Dad Go

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I'm back from spending two weeks at my brother and sister-in-law's house in western Washington, helping care for my dad, Bob Tweit, as he journeyed from being present and with us, to still and silent, doing the work of leaving this world. Tending to a dying loved one is a huge gift in the intimacy it inspires, the love that flows in the work of hands and heart--the changing of diapers, cleaning up pee and poop, the feeding and administering medications.

It's a time out of time, when day and night blur into a continuous stream of small and large blessings and crises, and the essential primacy of tending to physical, emotional, and spiritual needs. The hours may go slow as a toddler's first steps, or fast as a racing heart, but they are all dominated by the central task: keeping a person traveling between this life and the next comfortable, as pain-free as possible, and safe. 

I left Washington on Friday morning in cold rain, and drove the 1,100 miles home through snow and rain and fog and more snow, arriving here late Saturday afternoon--exhausted, and wondering how long Dad would hang on. 

Not long, it turned out. He died quite peacefully the next day, yesterday, in the early evening, with my sister-in-law, Lucy, my eldest niece, Heather, and my youngest niece, Alice, by his side. He's gone. 

I feel grateful for this end-time with Dad. The first week I was there, when Lucy and my brother, Bill, were away in Germany visiting my middle niece, Sienna, and her family, Alice helped me care for him part of the time, and then when she had to go back to school, I had Dad on my own. I got him to tell me stories of his childhood and his college years, to remember birding trips with Mom to far-flung continents, to talk about his best bird sightings.

His absolute favorite, he said, was a harpy eagle in Venezuala that was soaring only about 20 feet overhead, so close that he couldn't find it in his binoculars because the bird was too big for the field of view! (Harpy eagles' wingspans can stretch more than seven feet, a foot-and-a-half wider than I am tall, making them the largest hawks in the world.)

That was so Dad... 

Part of the extended Tweit clan out birding in earlier years (left to right, Molly Cabe, Richard Cabe, Bill Tweit, Joan Tweit, and Bob Tweit, our dad.) An affinity for birds runs in Tweit blood, unless you're me and you prefer plants...

Here is an excerpt from the remembrance I wrote using some of my favorite of the stories he told, to give you a sense of the man and the father:

Robert C. Tweit was born on July 26th, 1928, to Olav Mikal Tweit and Christine Faquharson Tweit in Orange, NJ, and grew up in nearby Mountain Lakes in the house his dad built. He ran track and cross-country in high school, and excelled in running uphill. “Everyone else slowed down on the hills,” he would say, laughing, “it was the only time I could get ahead.” He went to MIT for his undergraduate degree in Chemistry, and said that he benefited from having classmates who had returned from WWII and were going to college on the GI Bill, because they were more mature and focused on their education. 

After graduating from MIT in 1950, Bob bought a 1937 Ford sedan and hit the road for Berkeley, California, to attend University of California - Berkeley. Along the way, he visited national parks including Devil’s Tower and Yellowstone. It was Bob’s first taste of the West, and the experience left him with a lifelong love of travel, and also curiosity about the natural world. 

During Bob’s first year at Berkeley, he met a smart and lively, blue-eyed undergrad named Joan Cannon at the First Congregational Church. Less than two years later, on June 28, 1952, they were married in the same church. A year later, in June of 1953, the two picked up Bob’s last paycheck and set out a month-long tour of the West (in a newer Ford sedan) before Bob was due to start work as a research chemist at Searle Labs in Skokie, Illinois. On their way between Rocky Mountain National Park and points east, they picked up mail in Denver, and found Bob’s draft notice calling him up for service at the tail end of the Korean War. 

So instead of Illinois, Bob and Joan went first to New Jersey, and then Havre d’Grace, Maryland, where they lived for his time in the US Army Chemical Corps. Their first child, Bill, was born there in 1954. The next year, Bob was discharged, and the young family moved to Illinois, where Bob finally began work running a laboratory at Searle, and their daughter Susan was born. 

Bob spent the next 23 years at Searle developing drugs and other useful compounds, and enjoying the lab work, the research, his colleagues, and the stimulation of attending professional meetings. He was also active in Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, and with the First Congregational Church of Wilmette. During that time, his father helped Bob design and build the first of two camper vans modeled on VW campers. Those vans allowed Bob and the family to explore the Midwest on weekends, and the rest of the country on longer vacations. He and Joan took their kids rock-hounding, wildflower-hunting, birdwatching, hiking, camping, and backpacking from Maine to California, and Florida to British Columbia. Bob’s nature-study interest eventually focused on birds, from seeing new species, to banding them to study bird populations. 

Bob retired from Searle in 1978 with over 100 patents in his name. With the kids grown, he and Joan began another career as volunteers doing interpretive work at National Parks and National Forests throughout the West. They traversed the region from Alaska to Zion National Park in Utah. After they settled in Tucson, they volunteered at Saguaro National Monument and Tucson Audubon Society, leading bird trips and interpretive programs. ...

He and Joan traveled widely beyond North America, going on birding trips and nature-study tours to South America (from Venezuela to Patagonia) and Central America, including Costa Rica and Honduras, the latter with Bill, his wife Lucy Winter, and their youngest, Alice. They drove the Baja Highway, cruised the Volga River in Russia and the Rhine and Rhone in Europe, visited Bob’s cousins in Norway, and explored Scotland and England. They also took two extended trips to Australia, and spent time in New Zealand. 

After 23 years in Tucson, Bob and Joan moved to Denver to be nearer to Susan and her husband, Richard Cabe. They were active volunteers there with the Highlands Garden Village garden group, and enjoyed hikes and excursions in the Front Range. After Joan’s death in 2011, Bob moved to Lacey, Washington, and lived at Panorama, a retirement village, where he was near Bill and Lucy and their family. He took great joy in being the family “patriarch” and in spending time with his grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Bill and Lucy took Bob with them on several trips, including to Arizona for spring training (and birding), and to Wyoming to see Susan’s house-restoration-project in progress (and go birding).

It's hard to find words for how I feel after letting Dad go: a mix of deeply sad, proud of who he was and how our family pulled together to give him as good a death as possible, relieved that he didn't linger any longer, grateful to Bill and Lucy and my nieces, and to hospice for the help; and exhausted to the bone.

What I can find words for is my determination to carry on what Dad and Mom taught me: To cherish, study, and advocate for the community of species that makes this planet home. To leave my bit of Earth in better shape than I found it. And to live with love, always. 

Last Wednesday night, as I was tucking the covers around Dad after giving him his dinner-time medications, I said, "Love you, Dad." He responded without opening his eyes, "Love you all." By then he was preparing to leave this world: he hadn't eaten in three days, and hadn't drunk any liquids for 48 hours. And still he spoke of his love for our family: Love you all

Thank you for being gracious to the end, Dad. We were fortunate to have you in our lives, and you will live on in our hearts. Always. Love you. 

Dad, smiling without opening his eyes upon my brother's return from Germany, just over a week before Dad died. 

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Waiting: The Practice of Patience

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Patience has never been my virtue. I may spend a long time mulling over a life-decision, researching my options, looking for possibilities I might have missed. But once I decide, I am ready for the results NOW. Or better yet, yesterday. When things don't happen on the schedule I prefer, I fret (inwardly at least), pace about, and do whatever I can to move the process along. 

Oh, I can be patient about some things: writing, renovating a house, digging invasive weeds, shaping a garden... Creative stuff, in other words. 

For example, I spent almost 20 years restoring the block of degraded creek that bounded one edge of Terraphilia, our rescued industrial property in Salida, Colorado, and never got frustrated with the very slow process. You can't rush ecological restoration--it happens on nature's timetable, not ours--especially when you are doing most of the work yourself in your spare time, and with no recompense other than the satisfaction of healing one small part of this amazing planet.

I also spent the better part of seven years writing and rewriting the memoir I call Bless the Birds, even starting over from the very beginning to get it just right. 

I thought I was being patient with restoring this gorgeous mid-Century Modern house and yard too. After all, it's taken a year and nine months to go from grimy and neglected dump to photo-worthy and ready for another 60 years. Only my contractor reminded me that others spread a project like this over decades. Oh. "What if I don't live that long?" I countered. "I want to enjoy it now!" 

He looked at me with--dare I say it?--patience, and waited until I heard the irony in my own words. Okay, maybe I wasn't being as patient as I thought. 

My back deck on a sunny September morning

Apparently I need more practice in patience, and that's what life is giving me right now. 

I am (still) waiting for a publisher to pick up Bless the Birds.

I am waiting for a buyer to snap up my wonderful house and yard. 

I am waiting to hear that my friends who are in the way of Hurricane Florence came through okay, waiting for news on Dad's condition, waiting for a check to arrive for a freelance article I wrote, waiting for paperwork for some of Dad's financials, and waiting to hear if a local shoe store can order a pair of boots I need. 

Have patience! I tell myself. And sometimes I listen...

Now Mom, who has been dead for more than seven years, is reminding me of the importance of practicing patience, albeit in her own unique way. I have been having dreams of the you-can't-get-there-from-here sort, where what you need to accomplish is impossible and you wake frustrated and sometimes exhausted from the trying. 

In my dreams, I am charged with shepherding a group of elders including Mom and Dad onto a small passenger ferry that will carry them across a body of water. Only I can't keep the group together to board the boat: they wander in different directions or go off on their own. Even Mom and Dad, who always held hands, don't stick together. It's like herding cats; I wake tense and discouraged.  

And then, about a week before Dad ended up in the hospital were he was eventually diagnosed with terminal lymphoma, I woke from a very different dream: just Mom and me in a hazy dreamscape of puffy clouds, like a Renaissance fresco. Mom is seated (only there is no chair), looking off into the distance and tapping her feet impatiently. She holds out her hand as if to grasp another's hand, turns to me, and says, "He was always slow." I know immediately who "he" is. I start to reply, but she returns to staring into the distance. 

A moment later, she turns to me again, blue eyes snapping, and says, "Tell him to hurry up. I can't wait much longer."

I look off in the direction of her gaze and there is Dad, working his way towards us with slow and wobbling steps, tapping with his blind-guy cane. He turns his head toward us and says, "Where is she? I can't find her." 

"She's right here next to me, Dad." 

He clearly can't see Mom, so I walk over and lead him to her. He reaches out his hand, fumbling for hers, and misses it, so I guide his hand to hers. 

The moment their hands touch, they are gone. Just like that. 

I woke from that dream with a great sense of relief. I'm not the shepherd after all. Mom, it seems, is waiting for Dad. She'll guide him on this transition. 

Mom, waiting for Dad to finish framing the photo, on their honeymoon at Mt Lassen National Park in June, 1952.

Okay, I thought, Mom's telling me to be patient. (There's an irony in that, since she is clearly tired of waiting for Dad to join her wherever spirits go after they leave these bodies. But she's waited eight years--she's entitled to some impatience.) She's reminding me that I don't have to try so hard to make things work; I can trust that all will be well.

I'm working on that. 

I'm also working on being patient with myself. Because I've realized that losing Dad brings up the grief of those other two losses, Mom and Richard, both gone in the same year.

Weathering grief takes time, just as love takes time--and patience. 

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